How To Ride A Motorcycle With A Pillion Passenger (2022)

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Updated: September 2022

The first time my significant other asked if she could ride pillion on my next tour, it took me a split second longer to answer than usual.

Of course, I smiled and said yes – because I love her, and that’s what you do. But on the inside, I’ll admit that the selfish part of me was more than a little pissed!

And worried. Because never in my life had I gone touring with a pillion.

But what I didn’t realise at the moment was that she was just as concerned as I was – but for a different set of reasons.

Over the coming weeks, we formed a plan. We got her used to riding pillion on a motorcycle and we planned how much stuff we could take and where it would go.

A few months later, we set off on our trip together – and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience for both of us!

So in this post, I want to go through the steps you need to consider when touring with a pillion. But don’t worry. It’s nowhere near as bad or as complicated as you may be anticipating!

rider and passenger on bmw - motorcycle pillion passenger
Image: BMW

How To Ride A Motorcycle With A Pillion Passenger: The Brief

Do you remember the first time you got on a motorcycle? That strange concoction of nervousness, apprehension, excitement, and intimidation?

Jumping on a bike for the first time is alien for everybody – and your pillion will feel the same way you did the first time you swung a leg over a motorcycle.

And whilst your pillion may not yet understand the finer intricacies of riding a motorcycle, they will be familiar with the common conception that riding a motorbike is dangerous. So they need reassurance.

It might not seem like much. But taking the time to brief them on what to expect will go a long way to helping them relax before they even get anywhere near the bike.

So what kind of things do you need to cover in this brief? Well, let’s have a look.

riders and passenger on triumph's
Image: Triumph

Help Them Relax

The last thing you need is a frightened pillion. And that’s the main reason for your brief.

Helping them relax means they are less likely to tense up. And this is important. Because if they tense up, it will directly affect your control of the bike.

Intuitively, they will want to remain stiff in the centre of the bike (just like you did when you starting riding).

Or, worse yet, they may want to lean against you in the bends because their natural reaction will be to think they are about to fall off.

To avoid this power struggle, explain that they need to stay relaxed and neutral. When they feel more comfortable, they can lean into the bends with you and participate a little more. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Lastly, don’t forget to discuss how acceleration and deceleration affect the bike. Let your pillion know that as you accelerate, they will tip backwards slightly.

And similarly, let them know they will tip forwards a little when you apply the brakes. As they get used to it, they will begin to read the road and anticipate speed changes.

Finally, establish a safety signal. It’s important to remember that you (as a rider) are used to the movement and power of a motorcycle. Your pillion isn’t!

Having a signal (such as a squeeze of the hips or a tap on the leg) gives them more control. It allows them to communicate with you that they’re not okay.

Related: Practical Slow-Speed Riding For Motorcycle Touring

harley rider and passenger - motorcycle pillion passenger
Image: Mihai Catargiu

How To Ride A Motorcycle With A Pillion Passenger: Kit Them Out

It’s important to remember here that you and you alone are responsible for the well-being of your pillion. As the rider of the motorcycle, you have a duty of care.

Under UK law, the only requirement is that your pillion wears a helmet – and it must be strapped up. But I highly advise that you go the whole hogg when kitting out your pillion.

Let them route through your wardrobe and try on your spare kit. Most riders these days have kit for all seasons. So let your pillion mix and match until they come up with something that they are comfortable in, fits them, and protects them.

I recommend you ensure they have the following:

rider and passenger on motorbike
Image: Triumph

Crank Up The Sensity With Bluetooth

If possible, install a Bluetooth intercom into your helmets. The first time I took my partner out on my bike, the intercom proved invaluable in terms of reassurance.

My partner is a chatty little soul, and she mitigates her nerves by endlessly asking questions. It’s annoying as hell, but it’s her way of coping – and I have to respect that.

Not only did the intercom allow me to confirm she was okay, but it also meant she could ask questions on the fly. She could speak to me at any given moment. And this, in turn, helped her to relax.

Related: The Best Motorcycle Bluetooth Headsets: Budget To Premium

riders and passenger on triumph's - motorcycle pillion passenger
Image: Triumph

How To Ride A Motorcycle With A Pillion Passenger: Preparing Your Bike

You shouldn’t need to do all that much to a modern bike with regards to preparing it for two-up riding.

Many bikes these days have electronic aids that change settings at the push of a button.

It’s worth stiffening up the rear suspension by adding a touch of pre-load to accommodate the extra weight of your pillion and luggage.

Check your handbook for the manufacturer’s recommended tyre pressures, and ensure they are in good condition.

Lastly, if your bike has a rear seat the size of a postage stamp, it might be worth investing in something a little more comfortable for your pillion. (If you don’t, they’ll complain endlessly, and you’ll wish you had!)

It could be something as simple as a throw-over sheep skin cover. If you’re feeling flashy, you could even opt for a cushion or air cushion.

motorcyclist and passenger with open helmets
Image: Kieran Sheehan

Mounting & Dismounting

The simplest way of doing it is by you (the rider) getting on the bike first. Lift the bike off the side stand, then kick it up into its stowed position.

With two feet on the ground, centre the bars and apply the front brake.

Get your pillion to put their left hand on your left shoulder (and, if possible, their right hand on your right shoulder). Then ask them to place their left foot on the left pillion peg.

In one smooth, continuous motion, they should swing their right leg over the bike and sit gently on their seat.

From here, their right foot should be on the right passenger foot peg, and they can let go of you.

To get off the bike, the same process is followed in reverse.

For touring riders, however, it doesn’t stop here! And whilst I recommend the above method first, getting on and off the bike can be complicated when luggage is involved.

Panniers and/or a top box can hinder your pillion when trying to get on the bike. So once they’ve been on the bike a few times and are comfortable, you’ll need to figure out what works for you when the bike is fully loaded.

rider and passenger on triumph with luggage - motorcycle pillion passenger
Image: Triumph

How To Ride A Motorcycle With A Pillion Passenger: Holding On

First-time pillions usually don’t know what to do with their hands. And instinctively, they’ll grab onto you with both hands.

If it’s your partner, it’s a little easier because it doesn’t really matter where they put their hands. But if it’s a mate, things can get a little icky!

Ideally, they will hold on to the grab rails. But most people usually need to work up to this position, so I often just tell them to wrap both arms around my waist.

Once they get used to it, ask them to try one arm around your waist and the other one holding on to the grab rail.

If that’s okay, they can let go of you completely and just use the grab rails.

Bonus tip: Use a top box if you have one. Having something physical to lean back on gives an inexperienced pillion confidence that they aren’t going to fly off the back.

rider and passenger on motorbike with luggage on mountain road
Image: Triumph

Dink, Dink, Dink

That’s the sound of your pillion’s helmet banging into yours.

It’s funny at first, and we can all have a laugh about it. But after a while, it can be incredibly frustrating for both of you.

Once your pillion has some experience in the saddle, they’ll begin to realise how they need to hold their posture to avoid banging heads with you.

But until then, it’s up to you to keep things smooth and progressive.

Known offenders that cause the dreaded “dink” are:

  • Decelerating sharply (instantly coming off the throttle instead of rolling off gently)
  • Jumping too harsh on the front brake
  • Applying throttle too aggresively
  • Jerky gear changes
bmw rider and passenger passing lake - motorcycle pillion passenger
Image: BMW

How To Ride A Motorcycle With A Pillion Passenger: Keeping Things Smooth

Any rider who is worth their salt knows that smoothness is the secret to riding motorcycles with accomplishment. Smooth riders are good riders. And smooth riders are safe riders.

But when you’re riding with a pillion, smoothness becomes even more important. So what can we do to ensure we keep things smooth and progressive for newbie pillions?

We look at speed changes, braking, shifting, and cornering.

Speed Changes:

You can make things more comfortable by being careful with the throttle.

As with everything on a bike, it’s a balancing act. With additional weight on the back, you’ll need to be assertive with the throttle to get the bike off the line smoothly.

But too much throttle, and you could catch your unsuspecting passenger off-guard.

Your pillion won’t be anticipating any sudden acceleration. And don’t forget, they don’t have the bars to hold on to like you do.

Shift Smoothy:

When changing from first to second, you’ll need to shift as usual whilst trying to keep it as smooth as possible.

For the rest of the upshifts, most bikes allow for clutchless shifting. When done correctly, this keeps things nice and smooth. Just be sure to ease off the throttle for a split second as you shift.

Coming down the gears, you’ll need to use your clutch. Rev-matching is a great way of maintaining smoothness on down changes. You can also try slipping the clutch at the end of the lever travel to minimise the effects of deceleration.

bmw rider and passenger crossing wooden bridge
Image: BMW

Braking:

As mentioned above, excessive braking will cause your pillion to shunt forwards. 

Slamming on the brakes leads to accidental head-butting, plus you’ll end up with a 23-litre fuel tank in your crotch.

Using your rear brake more will help to maintain equilibrium – keeping the bike upright, straight, and balanced.

Lastly, don’t be clever with your braking! Whilst you might pretend you’re Rossi by trail braking on your Sunday morning rideouts, try to get your braking done in a straight line when riding with a pillion.

The last thing you need with a nervous passenger on the back in your rear wheel sliding out because you applied way too much brake, way too late.

Cornering:

As mentioned above, you’re winning the battle with a pillion if you can get them to relax. But once they’re at this point, they can begin to participate in the riding element a little more.

As you tip into a left-hand bend, you will countersteer the bike and lean left into the bend. Ask your pillion to follow your lead, and tip into the bend with you. 

When they feel you accelerating out of the bend, the bike will begin to stand up. And as you come up into a central position, ask them to come with you.

The overall smoothness of a ride improves significantly when your pillion is working with you!

bmw rider and passenger hairpin bend mountains - motorcycle pillion passenger
Image: BMW

How To Ride A Motorcycle With A Pillion Passenger: Give Yourself Some Distance

With a pillion (especially one who’s never ridden before), everything you do needs to be a touch slower and a touch smoother than if by yourself.

With this in mind, leave a slightly bigger gap between yourself and the vehicle in front. Your ride will be smoother if you can ease off the throttle and allow a little more engine braking.

It will also be tonnes safer – and much more comfortable for your pillion.

Don’t Show Off

Lastly, do you remember when you passed your driving test? You were 18 years old and, in no doubt, convinced that your handbrake turns would get you all the girls. Remember that?

Never worked, did it?! And it won’t work now, either.

You can start to increase everything gradually as your pillion becomes more confident. But until then, keep things calm, slow, and predictable.

Scraping the pegs and trying to get your knee down on the twisties is fine when you’re by yourself. But when you have a new pillion on the back, this really isn’t the time!

It’s also worth remembering that their perception of speed is very different to yours as an experienced rider.

When I first took my partner on the motorway, 70mph (to me) felt slow. But she didn’t like it – so I had to back off until she felt comfortable. Once she was used to the speed and acceleration, she loved it when I accelerated down a slip road!

But until that time, nice and slow is the way to go. Because whilst showing off might be fun for you, it could put them off for life. And if they panic, it could result in both of you skidding across the tarmac.

rider and passenger on triumph motorbike
Image: Triumph

How To Ride A Motorcycle With A Pillion Passenger: Conclusion

To summarise, motorcycle touring with a pillion can be an incredible experience, especially if it’s with someone you love.

Allowing them a glimpse into your riding life serves to bring you closer as you forge yet more memories together.

If you play your cards right, you might even inspire them to get a bike of their own. And that means you get to have your bike all to yourself again!

rider and passenger on kawasaki - motorcycle pillion passenger
Image: Jack Plant

FAQs

What Licence Do You Need To Ride A Motorcycle With A Pillion Passenger?

You need a full licence to ride with a pillion – in other words, you cannot carry a pillion with a provisional licence or L-plates.

Can I Use Any Bike To Carry A Pillion?

No, you cannot carry a pillion on a bike that isn’t meant to carry one. Your bike must have a proper seat and rear footpegs that the pillion can reach. You can only carry one pillion at a time, and they must be sat fully astride the seat, facing forwards, and with both feet on the rear footpegs.

Can I Carry A Child As A Pillion?

Yes – there is currently no legal lower limit at which a child can ride pillion. They must comply with the rules above (facing forwards, feet on the pegs, have the ability to hold on), and they must be wearing protective equipment.

Do I Need To Be Insured To Ride A Motorcycle With a Pillion Passenger?

Yes! Most comprehensive insurance policies give you the option to include pillion cover when you take out the policy. If you do not opt for it, you will not be insured to carry a pillion.

Top image: BMW

BMW images via Press, Triumph images via Press

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